Using the tools of biotechnology to advance Borlaug’s legacy

Keynote speech by Mark Lynas to the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative 2013 Technical Workshop, Hotel Taj Palace, New Delhi

20 August 2013, 8.30am

[as prepared – please check against delivery]

Ladies, gentlemen, distinguished delegates, honoured guests,

I particularly want to acknowledge Jeanie Borlaug, chair of BGRI and a champion of continuing her father’s legacy in food security… and her daughter and Dr Borlaug’s grand-daughter Julie Borlaug, who is not with us today but has been both an insipiration and a practical support to me in preparing these remarks.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Three weeks ago I was travelling in central Kenya, meeting smallholder farmers who were growing improved bananas using the tools of modern biotechnology. Their banana plantations were healthy because they had been able to obtain clean tissue culture plantlets from the agricultural research institute rather than transplanting disease-carrying suckers.

One of these farmers, who had just over an acre of land, and children to feed, told me, much to my surprise, that he had once met Dr Norman Borlaug. He had been on a Kenyan delegation to the World Food Prize some years ago, it turned out. His description of the event has stayed in my head ever since. Meeting Borlaug was “like meeting the President of the World”, he told me with a grin.

Well, Borlaug wasn’t president of the world of course. To my knowledge he wasn’t president of anything. And yet he achieved more in his lifetime to change the world for the better than any official world leader I can think of for at least the last half-century.

That is why the Kenyan smallholder farmer I met remembered meeting Borlaug as one of the greatest moments of his life. Because he had shaken hands with one of the greatest men who has ever lived.

And we heard similar very moving testimonials last night from farmers here in India for whom Norman Borlaug touched their lives and changed them for the better.

Now, generally I am sceptical of hagiographic tributes, but with Borlaug it would be difficult to exaggerate his positive impact. As M S Swaminathan has put it:

“There is a saying in the Gita that, from time to time, God appears on earth in disguise. When the world was in a serious food crisis one of the godly forms who appeared was Norman Borlaug.”

Unlike official world leaders, Borlaug achieved what he did not through formal political power, nor through lofty rhetoric delivered from high up on the world stage, but through rigorous science and sheer hard work.

Science in Borlaug’s case was meticulously crossing thousands upon thousands of different wheat plants, in order to breed new varieties with greater yields, dwarfing characteristics and higher ratio of grain to total biomass.

Science for him also meant living alone in the research station he established in Sonora in Mexico, sowing wheat out of season initially by hand with a hoe, with no electricity or clean water, and with a dying child in a hospital far away.

How many of us would have worked that hard and made those kinds of sacrifices, even if we had known in advance – as he could not possibly have done – that we would end up saving a billion lives?

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We are gathered here today, under the aegis of an international collaboration that bears his name, to continue Borlaug’s lifelong battle with wheat rust. Rust wiped out his family farm’s wheat when he was a boy, and rust was the reason Borlaug initially established the research station in Sonora.

As we all know, he and his colleagues succeeded eventually in defeating wheat stem rust for many decades, until the emergence of the resistant race Ug99 at the very end of the last century.

Although the progress of Ug99 has not been as dramatic as initially feared, susceptible wheat is still being grown all over the world, and forms a mainstay of humanity’s food supply today. A fifth of all our calories come from wheat, and the global harvest is nearly 700 million tonnes per year.

While European wheat growers keep stem rust at bay with liberal applications of fungicide, this is neither ecologically sustainable nor financially desirable over the longer term.

In south and east Asia, meanwhile, both of which produce more wheat than the whole of North America, most growers cannot afford or do not have access to fungicides.

Billions of people therefore depend on susceptible wheat varieties that are sitting ducks, waiting for an epidemic of Ug99 to be blown over on the winds from the Middle East and Africa.

I was given the mandate to talk today about ‘Using the tools of biotechnology to advance Borlaug’s legacy’, and I cannot imagine a more appropriate area where this applies than the question of tackling wheat stem rust.

Borlaug was an unusual revolutionary in that he didn’t want his revolution to stop with him. He was a lifelong advocate of innovation – and a staunch supporter of biotechnology as the promising new frontier for plant breeding.

You can see why. By today’s standards, Borlaug had to work blind, using guesswork, chance and a lengthy process of elimination with thousands upon thousands of wheat crosses to try to get just the right genetic combination.

Because this took so long with only one growing season per year, he established his now-famous shuttle approach between the Mexican highlands and lowlands, in research stations more than a thousand kilometres apart, to squeeze two harvests into each year.

Today the tools of molecular biology give plant scientists, if not quite 20:20 vision, a much greater insight into the genetic level of their work than even Borlaug could have imagined when he began his research in Mexico.

Breeders can now work at the molecular level of individual genes, potentially eliminating the problem of linkage drag and the need for multiple backcrossings to eliminate undesirable characteristics.

There’s not much good in finding a Ug99-resistant gene, for example, if you have to cultivate and eat basically Bronze Age grass in order to use it.

The two papers in the current edition of Science, identifying the specific Sr35 and Sr33 rust resistance genes, are therefore real landmarks because they mean that resistance can potentially be transferred very quickly into multiple commercial varieties.

Hence the very clear conclusion by the authors – that, to quote from one of the papers, these identfications “open the door to transgenic approaches to control this devastating pathogen”, not least because both genes can also likely be stacked together to confer durable resistance hopefully for many years to come.

These are natural resistance genes from wheat ancestors and early cultivars – but sooner or later the pool of genes may run out as the pathogen mutates again. The war against the evolution of new resistance can never be won for long and will require constant research and vigilance, as Borlaug himself urged.

In future therefore we may need scientists to synthesize artificial genes, hopefully based on increased future knowledge about how the fungus operates and how other plants naturally resist it.

As we heard yesterday, Borlaug himself long held a dream that scientists would be able to identify how rice resists fungal rust and then transfer the relevant genes into susceptible varieties of wheat.

Better still, there is even greater potential now that the wheat genome has been sequenced and substantially deciphered, dramatically expanding the genetic library that breeders can use in the future.

It is notable and admirable by the way that all this information was instantaneously made freely available on the web – this is a collaborative project using science for the benefit of all humanity.

I cannot imagine a better embodiment of Norman Borlaug’s philosophy than this successful joint effort.

**************

But unfortunately the progress of good science runs up against the hard rock of bad politics. As perhaps the world’s most political food crop, by virtue of its very nature in supplying our daily bread, wheat has so far been locked out of the biotechnology revolution.

Although many new wheats have been developed using recombinant DNA and even tested in field trials, not a single one has ever been made available to farmers – not because there was anything wrong with the new varieties, but solely because of the worldwide cloud of fear and superstition that surrounds the use of genetic engineering.

Thus, the most powerful tools offered by modern molecular biotechnology must seemingly be permanently discarded – not because of any rational assessment of risks and benefits – but because a tide of anti-science activism has drowned scientists and governments around the whole world in a tsunami of lies.

The recent international furore over the discovery of a few herbicide-tolerant wheat seedlings in the corner of a single field in Oregon showed how far mythological fears about GMOs bred from an anti-science agenda has captured the media mainstream.

The appropriate response to the Oregon fiasco should have been ‘who the hell cares?’, yet instead we saw a bizarre agricultural equivalent of a murder mystery begin to play out, while entire countries cancelled their wheat shipments.

Meanwhile, 800 million people are still malnourished through shortage of calories, GMO or otherwise, and no-one seems to care.

Make no mistake: this perverse pseudo-scientific debate is doing real damage in the world, to the lives and prospects of millions of people.

As Borlaug himself warned late in his life, after spending many of his declining years campaigning against the anti-biotech activists:

“If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.”

Although things have undoubtedly got worse in recent years with the rise of the anti-GM movement, it is perhaps reassuring in a way that Borlaug himself had to battle these same types of naysayers for every improvement in the Green Revolution.

As he remembered in his biography, there was massive opposition to bringing his high-yielding wheat into India in the mid 1960s:

“Because I was American-born and worked for the Rockefeller Foundation the communists claimed I was opening a back door to renewed foreign domination. Through my machinations, Mother India would be forever dependent on American fertilizer and pesticides.”

I have heard similar fears voiced by anti-GM activists around the world numerous times. The undercurrent here is a rather reactionary nationalism, that seeks to freeze entire countries in a state of underdevelopment and ignorance.

In Kenya I was personally accused in a public forum in Nairobi of leading a second wave of colonialism into Africa – even though I was sharing a podium with African scientists who had developed African GM versions of African crops.

‘Africa is not ready for these new technologies,’ the opponents would chorus, whilst chatting into their Chinese-made cellphones and posting regular status updates on the American website Facebook.

Some of the myths they spread are not just scientifically unfounded, but obscene and offensive. When I was in Tanzania a fortnight ago, an activist-trained farmer in the central region of Morogoro stood up and declared that GMO crops were an American plot designed to turn people sterile and turn male African children into homosexuals. I would have walked out, if the statement hadn’t been made in Swahili.

I looked into the funding of this group, by the way, and found that it draws large-scale support from European development charities whose mandate is to eradicate poverty. Instead, they are enforcing permanent poverty by ensuring that African farmers are denied the choice of whether to benefit from new technologies in agriculture.

Traditional is always best, they insist, even if the traditional seeds are racked with disease, decimated by drought, and yield barely a tenth of what modern varieties might do. Productivity matters most, don’t forget, for families who are fully dependent for their survival on what they themselves can grow.

I’ve never met a malnourished activist. Those who are short of food are the farmers themselves, trapped in an entirely organic and agro-ecological prison of rural poverty where they cannot afford fertiliser, irrigation or pesticides, let alone commercial seeds. Their children were emaciated and their futures were dim.

That well-fed Westerners promote the continuation of this situation for misconceived ideological reasons left me feeling almost physically sick. Seeing this desperate situation, and being able to do nothing about it, was one of the most difficult experiences of my life.

I wished in particular that Borlaug were still here with us. Without him we seem to be leaderless, trapped in a prison of political correctness where no-one seems to dare tell the truth about the reality on the ground.

Borlaug was a true leader, because he led by example not by giving orders, and he was prepared to learn from others until the end of his life. But bad leadership was also his key challenge, as it remains our key challenge today in advancing his legacy.

Here in India we have a moratorium on Bt brinjal, for example, not as a result of any scientific analysis or data, but because of a myopic decision made by a single very cynical and politically opportunist government minister.

Ironically for someone who professes to be guided by science in his separate concern about climate change, Jairam Ramesh failed to defend science in agriculture when called upon to do so and in my opinion thereby betrayed the very principles he is mandated to defend.

I don’t know whether he lacked courage or knowledge or both, but Ramesh’s decision has set back Indian progress in biotechnology potentially for many years. This has now led to the long charade of a Supreme Court panel deciding on the evidence of activists whether to accept the judgement of scientists, and providing yet another failure in the process.

This is all just fine for the activists, of course, because for them a permanent delay is as good as a formal prohibition. Like the tobacco lobby many years ago, fear, uncertainty and doubt are their main products.

We need leaders who stand up for science and for evidence-based policymaking, and are prepared to lead from the front, not the back – as did Agriculture minister Subramanian when welcoming Borlaug into India in 1964, in the teeth of opposition from traditionalists and the rest of the cabinet.

History shows Subramanian’s success of course, which saw India’s wheat harvest jump by 5 million tonnes in a single year. Had those with the leadership skills of Jairam Ramesh been in charge in 1964, the door would have been slammed in Borlaug’s face, there would have been no Green Revolution, and India might still be starving today.

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This is not to suggest that science is perfect, or that the only roadblocks come from short-sighted politicians and ideologically-motivated activists.

The scientific establishment has its own orthodoxies and rigidities, and Dr Borlaug battled against them often, with varying degrees of success. He frequently said that the top scientists were the key barriers to progress, because they are too invested in the way things have always been done, and too worried that new approaches will lose them influence and stature.

Science has failed to produce leaders of Borlaug’s calibre, who are determined to get past political roadblocks. Instead, I keep meeting scientists who are quietly frustrated, who continue with their laboratory work seemingly in psychological denial of the fact that in the current political and regulatory climate their new genetically improved crop varieties can never be grown outside the walls of a screenhouse or the high fences of a 24-hour-guarded field trial.

Today science is under assault, and the quiet life is no longer an option. As the researchers at IRRI have recently discovered with the vandalising of their Golden Rice project, if you don’t go to them, they will come to you.

The activists will use every weapon – fair means or foul, physically destroying research if necessary, locking up the courts, publishing propaganda in the press – to stop agricultural biotechnology.

Those scientists who work in this sector aren’t there by accident, or because of the high rates of pay, but because they believe in what they are doing. Plant breeders I meet are passionate about their work and its potential to benefit society. And yet society refuses to hear their message and researchers in turn seem unsure about how to respond.

As I know from the climate change arena, scientific training does not easily lead to victory in propaganda battles and the use of emotive language. The very skills which make a good scientist are a fundamental source of weakness in a debate with winners and losers.

It is time therefore to change the paradigm. Scientists must be clearer that the debate on GM is over, and that there is no meaningful discussion within the scientific community about the inherent safety of genetic engineering any more than there is about the reality of climate change.

Just as climate change deniers do, anti-GM activists will always find some who claim scientific credentials in order to battle against biotechnology. The onus is therefore on the community as a whole to organise and clearly communicate a consensus position – not just once, but repeatedly, as the field evolves.

We also need to somehow change a situation where those conducting perfectly safe transgenics work are shut away in Level II biosafety facilities as if they were developing germ warfare, and subject to regulations which threaten enormous fines and lengthy jail sentences if a single fragment of modified DNA ever leaves the laboratory under anything but the strictest conditions.

As Calestous Juma has argued, the entire framing of GM regulation as coming under the aegis of biosafety and biodiversity is wrong. This by the way is a former Chair of the Biodiversity Convetnion who says clearly that there is no inherent threat of GM crops to biodiversity, any more or any less than there is from any other cultivated species.

The issue is the agricultural system, not the genotype of the cultivar which is grown, and the actual data suggests that current-generation GM crops have been good for biodiversity – this particularly applies to Bt crops, which have reduced insecticide applications by 500 million kg since 1996.

We need to address the constant confusion between the genetic diversity and gene pool of cultivars on the one hand and the natural biodiversity of wild species on the other. Too many activist groups call themselves biodiversity campaigners when they do nothing but promote low-productivity agriculture which overall worsens biodiversity impacts through the inefficient use of land.

We also need to work much harder to break the erroneous public perception that biotechnology is somehow umbilically linked to chemical monoculture. This is actually the opposite of the truth – instead the trend we see is away from chemistry in crop protection towards biology in crop protection.

This means moving away from chemical sprays which kills non-target organisms and damage biodiversity, and towards biological traits like Bt which are highly pest-specific. Here the industry structure is itself at fault – I want to see biotech seeds being a truly disruptive technology to free farmers from the necessity to purchase chemical pesticides.

Most importantly, perhaps, we need to break out of the verbal and mental straitjacket of the ‘GMO’. It is now time to abolish the terms GM and GMO, and for the world to catch up with the scientific reality that there is no monolithic category of GM or non-GM plant breeding.

Instead, there are a whole spectrum of different ways for identifying, copying, editing, transferring, cloning and synthesizing genes which in turn utilise a variety of interrelated by very different ways of modifying the genome.

As has been repeatedly said for decades, everything we eat is genetically modified, and the only way to breed new varieties of crops is to modify genes by one approach or another.

For example, if the genes Sr33 and Sr35 are stacked into commercial varities of wheat, everyone will of course be asking: ‘But is it GMO’? The answer should of course be: it’s not the process that matters, but the characteristics of the plant you produce, because there’s absolutely no evidence that the modern techniques used to transfer genes are dangerous in any way.

At the moment in Europe and elsewhere you could end up with an identical genome, and yet the process for producing it would lead to either permanent regulatory limbo in the transgenic case or an immediate free pass in any other.

Now that scientists can so easily and quickly sequence genomes, they can prove that transgenic techniques working at the molecular level are far less disturbing to the genome than chemical mutagenesis, and also more benign than the major disruptions caused by what is now called traditional breeding.

So what is GMO? Is using a zinc finger nuclease, which targets a mutation to a specific gene guided by its nucleotide sequence, is that GMO? It isn’t called that now. Is polyploidization, doubling the number of chromosomes, GMO? That isn’t labeled GMO either.

Of specific interest to this meeting, is combining Sr33 and Sr35 genes into a single ‘cassette’ and inserting them into a wheat embryo – is that GMO? Yes it’s called GMO because we added a gene. But we’re talking about wheat genes being put into wheat, so why the big fuss?

You could do this conventionally too, but it would take years, you would have serious linkage drag, stacking the resistance genes would be next to impossible, and by the time you get the new varieties out there in 2024 or whenever the rust fungus would probably have already evolved a way around them.

This is why in my view scientists should insist to regulators and others that we move out of the simplistic GMO or non-GMO trench warfare.

How the plant is modified is not important. What’s important is what its properties are. If the plant is a familiar one, like wheat, and you added one trait, like a gene for a protein that isn’t toxic or allergenic, then the plant is merely the sum of what you started with and what you added, not some strange new frankencrop.

If we are to unlock the potential for modern molecular techniques to contribute fully to improving and protecting the wheat crop in particular, then we have to break out of the GMO prison.

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This matters today perhaps more than it ever did before. In the 1960s Norman Borlaug faced opposition from ecologists who argued that feeding a growing population was neither necessary nor desirable.

Better to let a few millions die now, went the argument from Pauh Ehrlich and Garrett Hardin, in order to stop the teeming masses breeding yet more millions in future and further growing the world population.

Morally repugant this may have been, but you still hear echoes of similar arguments being advanced in some circles today. And let’s not forget that Borlaug himself was extremely concerned about population growth – he may not have been a Malthusian, but he was no Cornucopian either.

He knew that just leaving everything to the market would be a recipe for failure, and that feeding a rapidly-growing population required dedicated and determined research over many years, combined with wider efforts to reduce population growth.

In his acceptance speech for the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, Borlaug warned that the agricultural breakthroughs for which he was being honoured would only provide a brief window of respite from the challenge of providing food for a growing world population.

Thanks to the Green Revolution, that window stayed open longer than perhaps he anticipated – but today it may well be starting to close. Borlaug bought us 50 years, but what will we do now?

For wheat specifically, the rate of population growth has been nearly double the rate of yield improvement, and in some parts of the world yields have not just stagnated but declined.

Overall, according to the latest research, we need to increase total food production by at least 100% by the middle of this century. But the current rate of yield improvement across all major food crops will see us fall 50% short of this target.

India alone is going to have to feed 400 million more mouths in the next thirty or so years. A billion more people will join the population worldwide in the next 12 years alone. The fastest population growth rates correspond closely with the areas of the developing world that still endure the lowest rates of agricultural productivity.

Biotechnology is a necessary but not sufficient component of any global response to this challenge. Using biotechnology will not guarantee succcess, but refusing biotechnology may well guarantee failure.

And we know what failure looks like. It looks like those children I met two weeks ago in East Africa, whose family cassava crops are dying in the fields from viral diseases, while resistant and healthy cassava varieties are locked in the lab because they are demonized as GMO.

We celebrate Norman Borlaug today because for him, despite multiple setbacks and personal and professional challenges, failure was not an option. Plant breeders now need to reclaim some of this indomitable spirit for the battles that lie ahead, whether against wheat rust, anti-biotech denialists or backward-looking politicians.

Let’s therefore be clear:

If we are to win the battle for food security, we need our researchers to be free to use all the tools of modern science.

We need our farmers around the whole world to be free to choose which varieties of which crops they wish to grow.

And we need our policymakers and media to lead society away from the pervasive cloud of negative mythology and denialism that have held back agricultural progress in recent years.

To my mind it would be a betrayal of Borlaug’s legacy if we don’t allow today’s scientists to use the tools of biotechnology to advance global food security.

I hope all of you will join today in pledging that you will not let that happen.

44 comments

  1. Mary says:

    Terrific talk, Mark. I really enjoyed hearing about how the African farmers are shaking off the fog created by European activists and solving their challenges with science now.

    And I’m so sorry I will never meet Borlaug. What a legacy. Seriously–the ability of a single human to provide that much food to the world boggles my mind.

    So glad you are carrying this information to where it needs to go.

    • Peter Simmons says:

      ‘Farmers and scientists have been dealing with resistance for centuries. Thankfully they’ve overcome it so far.

      I’m confident that they’ll do so again.’

      Better start now then, Roundup resistant weeds have already appeared. Where does your confidence come from?

  2. Madeleine Love says:

    No science, just proselytising.
    I’ll help you carry this information to where it needs to go.

    • Mary says:

      Farmers and scientists have been dealing with resistance for centuries. Thankfully they’ve overcome it so far.

      I’m confident that they’ll do so again.

  3. Jeff Walther says:

    Amazing, moving speech. Bravo.

    I hope that it will be motivate people in the field to be politically effective.

  4. Scott says:

    Nice speech over all. I couldn’t help but notice the jab at organic once again. If you could just shake ALL the old baggage from your earlier days and start fresh you would realize the fight isn’t against organic, that the same infiltrators that you yourself were a part of in the past were wrong to associate anti-gmo with organic agriculture to begin with.

    I would like to point out one of your last quotes, “If we are to win the battle for food security, we need our researchers to be free to use all the tools of modern science.” And the most advanced and cutting edge science in agriculture today is in fact in organic, or more precisely: biomimicry. Organic as defined by a few anti-GMO activists is without the tool of genetic engineering, while conventional often fails to use the most advanced agricultural biomimicry technology. At some point they must merge. Your jabs at organic are not helping. Your jabs at the anti-GMO crowd are appreciated though.

    Trust me. Most of us organic producers don’t like those anti-GMO fanatics any more than conventional producers. Probably hate them even worse because they hurt us more and we are forced by law to live with it, like it or not. The linkage should have never been made to begin with.

    • Peter Simmons says:

      I am sceptical of hagiographic tributes.

      ‘prepared by biodynamic guys who have their own little cult ‘ and this from someone who claims to be an organic grower, and should understand that while some like to perceive the natural ecological method spiritually, most don’t, and it doesn’t devalue organic that they believe this way; after all, there are plenty of anti-war activists who act from religious conviction, if anti-war atheists dismissed them in quite the same manner it wouldn’t do any good for their common cause. Why people hold views they do isn’t important, but in this case it makes it too easy for ‘scientists’ you know, those rational people who are swayed only by fact and not superstition, to reject organic as a deranged anti-science position they can feel superior to, when it is totally rooted [pardon!] in the soil, an understanding of soil mechanisms and ecology, and in what works.

      Recent research is now showing that organic yields can be same as ‘conventional’ yields and higher than GM yields, so feeding the poor just doesn’t get close. What’s certain, and what is never addressed by those promoting GM, or ‘conventional farming even, is deterioration of the soil and the organisms which live in it and which make nutrients available for plant take up. We are to expect more violent extremes of weather, which includes levels of rainfall that cause floods and soil runoff. Chemical farming whether GM or not, does nothing for soil but pulverise and deplete. Nutrients have to be sprayed on each year to continue high yields, it is a system that cares little for the future, an attitude that has brought us to where we are with climate. That someone who understands what that means, as Mark surely does, to turn to a quick scientific fix that is largely spin, and is more about capitalism and its need to constantly grow and expand than about healthy, sustainable food production, is disappointing and inexplicable. What’s the point, after all, when the chances of climate change making agriculture near impossible in 50 years time are high? What’s the point of ‘feeding the starving’ to sentence them to be washed away with their villages in massive floods we can’t even anticipate let alone stop?

    • Clyde Davies says:

      @Peter, you state:”That someone who understands what that means, as Mark surely does, to turn to a quick scientific fix that is largely spin, and is more about capitalism and its need to constantly grow and expand than about healthy, sustainable food production, is disappointing and inexplicable. What’s the point, after all, when the chances of climate change making agriculture near impossible in 50 years time are high? What’s the point of ‘feeding the starving’ to sentence them to be washed away with their villages in massive floods we can’t even anticipate let alone stop?”

      Firstly, what is wrong with a quick scientific fix, given that Green policies have singularly failed so far to engage with, let alone deal with, the issue of feeding people? Healthy, sustainable food production demands that first of all we address the main challenge of making sure that people are properly fed. To apply your argument to other areas, what is the point of vaccinating people when diseases like polio and malaria tend to be indicative of poverty more than anything else? It’s because the end of stopping illness and death is more important than the means by which it’s achieved.

  5. Bry says:

    I was gripped by your speech from beginning to end. Borlaug is truly and justifiably honoured here but it is wonderful to have you lucidly indicate what must happen in agriculture if sufficient food is to be grown to feed the world. European anti-GMO naysayers are tragically misguided but, as you say, they are not the ones going hungry. And, like you, I loathe the ‘GMO’ label. I do, however, believe that many organic growing techniques used in conjunction with new varieties produced by whatever biotechnological means are available — freed from their ‘imprisonment’ by absurd regulations based on myth rather than evidence — must be the way forward. You might call it the eclectic approach. To me as an ex-organic grower, the refusal of the organic regulators (like the Soil Association) to even discuss making use of the wonderful toolkit offered by biotech in the public domain is another tragedy. We need genetic engineering and organic growing to be partners, not enemies.

  6. Juan says:

    Great speech, we need to make science win this battle against prejudice
    Bravo

  7. Bluebell March says:

    This is an evil science. Ask the poor and hungry people what they would choose to eat? THEY DO NOT WANT GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOOD!
    The big Biotech companies want to control the worlds food….its not about health or more profitability to the farmer….its all about money and power.

    • Neil says:

      Really? After reading that entire speech, that’s your conclusion?

    • Scott says:

      Bluebell,
      Of course a COMPANY may be after higher profits and control of markets, but the technology is neither good nor evil.

      Just like a plane (technology of flight) can be used to drop bombs and kill people, or can be used to airlift in food and supplies after a natural disaster to save people. The technology could be used for evil or good. So it is important to differentiate between technology and the people using that technology.

      Genetic engineering in agriculture can have many good uses. Late blight for example is still a potentially dangerous disease in potatoes and tomatoes and there are at least 3 (probably many more) late blight resistant genes found in certain cultivars and/or wild relatives. Mark was talking about rust resistant genes in wheat. There are countless more examples where GE could be put to good use. Then of course there are uses where you are correct, like Glyphosate paired with a GMO that were used for evil purposes.

      I think you need to realize your anti-GMO activism is actually only causing harm to people trying to put GE technology to good use, because the large corporations putting it to evil use are now the only ones able to afford to get GMOs approved through the regulatory obstacles.

      I would recommend focusing on the use and the companies ethical reputation, instead of the technology.

    • Ariane Beldi says:

      @Bluebell March:

      The poor don’t want genetically modified food? How do you come to this conclusion? Have you asked them? Or are you simply repeating what well-fed rich Western activists are claiming?

      The industry wants to control the world’s food? Really? On what basis do you claim that? Because they defend the intellectual property of innovations in which they invested hundred of millions if not billions of dollars?

      And what about the thousands of plant scientists around that same world who are doing research in biotechnologies to improve crops yields and quality? Are they all evil Dr. Jekyll plotting against their fellow human beings with the help of the industry? Or just idiots being utilized by demonic capitalists?

    • Loren Eaton says:

      Good grief, Marie Antoinette!! I read recently that in 2008 India had 60.8 million children under the age of 5 that were malnourished. And yet we have people of privilege such as yourself and Vandana Shiva (who really ought to know better) spouting this drivel. I guess its ‘Let them eat organic’.

    • Scott says:

      @Loren Eaton,
      Actually I am a big supporter of Vandana Shiva. In general she is spot on regarding how GMOs and other supposedly good things can have the opposite effect as intended. (assuming good intentions to begin with, in many cases I suspect the people behind it had no such good intentions at all).

      Vandana Shiva may not be perfect, I have questioned a few things she has said, but she is far closer to the truth than most people realize.

    • Loren Eaton says:

      Sorry Scott. This is the lady who said on Huffington in 2009, “Monsanto’s GM seeds create a suicide economy.” That nonsense has been debunked many times over and her assessment of cotton yields is just flat out wrong. She yammers on about how monoculture is going to be such a disaster and yet things were even worse before Dr. Borlaug came in and bought them several decades of stability.
      When I was in elementary school in the stone age (AKA the ’60s) I remember the teachers telling us that one task of the garbage workers in India was to deal with the corpses of starved people. Make no mistake, if/when these countries get in a jam and can’t feed their people, it will be that ‘evil monoculture’ in THIS COUNTRY that allows them to survive.

    • Scott says:

      @Loren,
      And who will feed us Loren? When our neglect of the most basic ecological services like the carbon, water, and waste cycles finally destroy what productivity advantages we have inherited from breaking virgin ground that was 1,000’s of years fallow, then what? We eat dirt from the new dust bowl we will have created?

      Luckily a large % of people are waking up and looking at the whole picture, instead of only short term. And yes, 50 years is short term.

      Oh and by the way, Shiva is not wrong. Monsanto, the World Bank etc did create a suicide economy in India. Purposely so too. They may not have purposely wanted people to commit suicide, but they certainly purposely wanted those farmers driven off their land. Conventional Agriculture is good at maximizing productivity per farmer, not necessarily productivity per acre. For years economists in the West considered this a good thing. Fewer farmers means more people in cities doing other work in other industries. No farmer in the West growing commodity grains can expect to make a decent living on the 40 -100 acres of the old farmsteads. So policies and technology were put in effect to purposely drive farmers off their land and into the cities. This was fine in the West for two reasons. One reason was labor shortages due to WWII and economies needing the concentrated labor in those cities. The second was an abundance of land.

      India is not the West. A farmer in India forced off their land isn’t likely to find a new better life in the cities. More likely he will be forced into even worse poverty and end up begging on a corner or as one of those corpses. The economic and agricultural models that worked in the West at least short term is not having the same effect in India.

    • Loren Eaton says:

      According to my research the spike in farmer suicides started in 1995 and plateaued around 1999-2000. They’ve remained fairly stable (but ridiculously high) since then. Funny, but Monsanto didn’t introduce the Bt cotton until 2002. How exactly did this cotton cause suicides before it was introduced? The same article also mentioned that there has been spike in suicides among young people (not farmers) aged 15-29. Why? And also that farmer suicides are LESS frequent than those of the general population. Why? You fail to establish correlation, let alone causation.

    • Scott says:

      Loren,
      Surely you realize Shiva is using Bt cotton as a symbol for Western style conventional Agriculture and Economies. Much like Gandhi used spinning clothing from cotton as a symbol for the abuses of colonialism, Shiva is using similar symbolism. If you don’t understand that symbolism, then I guess you don’t understand India. I don’t even fully understand India, but I do understand that Shiva is using symbolism and not even trying to draw a 1-1 correlation or causation.

    • Loren Eaton says:

      Scott, whether it is symbolism or an outright falsehood, it simply didn’t go down that way. If this level of ‘symbolism’ enters their policy making, it’s not a wonder they’re still messed up 70 YEARS after the British left. If I don’t get the symbolism, I’m probably not the only one and anti-GMO types will certainly take what she says as FACT.
      So, is this particular red herring simply there to distract folks from the much larger issue of suicides and widespread economic problems in that country, or perhaps to scapegoat a company that ‘nobody likes anyway?’ Or maybe both?? I’m no economist, but even a quick look makes it appear that the chasm between the haves and the have not’s there is enormous. Is that to be blamed on the west or do they need to look inward?

    • Scott says:

      @Loren,
      To understand the cotton symbolism to have to go back to Gandhi and colonial times. During one of many of Gandhi’s walks through the countryside to learn first hand how colonialism was affecting the people, he came to a farmer’s home. Outside was a young woman. He was talking with that woman and found out the woman’s mother was inside. He asked to talk with her too. He was told no because the elder woman had no clothes to wear in respectable mixed company. the two women had one set of clothes for public between them. So only one could have visitors at a time. This was unthinkable in India which was and is famous for textiles, and from farmers too! They were not allowed to grow cotton or food, only commodity tea. The encounter is what gave Gandhi his idea of passive resistance to colonial rule. It is why he started the whole cotton spinning wheel campaign and you always saw him at his home spinning. He turned the spinning wheel and cotton into a symbol of passive non violent resistance against colonialism in general.

      Shiva is simply using bt cotton as similar symbol showing how the new economic colonialism is effecting India. It’s not just cotton, and not just agriculture, it is a symbol of the whole system that was forced on India in exchange for the relief efforts. Those relief efforts in the “war against poverty” came with strings attached. Those strings are now in many cases tending to perpetuate that poverty in important sectors of the Indian economy…ie like agriculture.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      “Then of course there are uses where you are correct, like Glyphosate paired with a GMO that were used for evil purposes. ”

      C’mon, Scott, let’s get a sense of perspective here. Genetically engineering the Legionella bacterium so it would also cause multiple sclerosis is truly evil, as are such abominations as the Novichok agents: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novichok_agent . Really evil uses of science are few and far between, thank God.

  8. Dear Sir,

    This is very resourceful and thought provoking address.

    Shortly, Indian government (Parliament) is about to pass Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill 2013 (BRAI Bill 2013). There is huge confusion prevailing in the minds of common man and farmer community regarding the benefit and harm it will bring. Government should take advice and opinion from People like you also so that keeping Indian scenario in mind they can bring about necessary change onto the Bill to satisfy all the stakeholders of the country. If it is biased to satisfy the demands/pressures of Indian or MNC’s associated with GMO, or if is cleared in a hurry without concern to the voices of NGO’s and public, it is not a good sign.

    Dr. S. Ramgopal Rao, Associate Professor, Dept. of Biotechnology, SNIST, Hyderabad, India

    • Peter Simmons says:

      With your qualifications you should be able to understand how the [US] GM companies have been carrying out the latest colonial assault on India and far from providing India with food for its exploding population, is all about locking farmers in to contracts to buy seed and herbicides. Best look at birth control instead.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      Excuse me? Is this the way you talk to all experts in their fields? The ‘colonial assaults’ have resulted in farmers *pirating* GM seeds when they can’t get their hands on them. Nobody is forced to grown anything they don’t want to and from what I’ve read, they want to very much.

      And as for your ridiculous and objectionable comment about birth control, populations are increasing throughout the world because more children are surviving to adulthood, not because more of them are being born. This is as a result of better healthcare, rising prosperity and education. Better look as mass extermination next, I suppose.

  9. Bluebell March says:

    Ethical GMO’s?….I dont think so.. it is a step too far from what is natural, normal or good for the planet.

    • Scott says:

      Bluebell,
      You said, “it is a step too far from what is natural, normal or good for the planet.”

      Again you seem to be somewhat confused. No agriculture is “natural”. I say that and I am an organic grower using many permaculture and holistic management techniques and methods. In fact I am working on developing an integrated method that is scale-able and could replace much of conventional agriculture. So I have done quite a bit of research and down and dirty hands on real world experience on the subject.

      Thousands of years ago when our food crops were domesticated from their wild relatives, much of the wild genome was left behind. Some of that wild genome COULD be brought back with genetic engineering now that we understand genetics far better than our ancestors thousands of years ago. That certainly would be an ethical use of GE technology. Those GMOs could have nutrition or disease resistance our modern cultivars lost in the domestication process.

      When you make broad sweeping accusations against GMOs, I understand your resistance. But once again, I ask you to focus your energy at the use of the technology and the ethical reputation of the companies using the technology and not the technology itself. Your sweeping condemnations, along with millions of others making similar sweeping condemnations, and their effect on policy makers, are actually counter-intuitively causing more harm and making it even more likely that mostly bad uses for the technology be developed.

    • Peter Simmons says:

      @Scott ‘Some of that wild genome COULD be brought back with genetic engineering’ well it could, and I don’t rule out GM entirely, but when GM companies, principally Monsanto, behave in a dishonest, bullying manner, one must expect resistance. Their behaviour is similar to ‘Big Tobacco’, perhaps it’s merely US capitalism in all its ugliness? Not sure why normal plant breeding can’t suffice to reintroduce genes from wild plants as has been done plenty of times. GM isn’t the ‘work of the devil’, but there’s been too much gung-ho ‘let’s spread it round the enviroment and see what happens’ attitude which suggests an ignorance of and disreagrd for nature, and how millions of years of evolution have worked fine to achieve a balance we upset at our peril.

      If GM and Toacco got together, maybe tey could produce tobacco which isn’t addictive and doesn’t cause lung cancer, if they were really about saving lives. But then all those millions of acres of land growing tobacco could grow food instead.

  10. Bluebell March says:

    I dont’t get this……this site is censured…well comments are…mm…not very balance….Anti GMO persons not allowed to express their views.

    BTW Scott, I am a Chef and also a Biointensive farmer.

    • Mark Lynas says:

      This site is not ‘censored’, but libellous posts and fictionalised accusations against specific individuals will be deleted.

  11. Bluebell March says:

    Everything should be open for debate…dont you think? Otherwise how do we get to the truth. Don’t you agree Mark?

    • Irene Goodnight says:

      The world is (roughly) spherical and this is not open to debate. A meaningful debate must include INFORMED positions. It is pointless to argue about position A and B when position A comes from the Tooth Fairy.

    • Scott says:

      Exactly why I get frustrated talking to people about organic. They know barely anything about it. What they do know was generally prepared by enemies of organic attempting to refute it, or prepared by biodynamic guys who have their own little cult they are trying to recruit.

  12. Peter Simmons says:

    @Loren Eaton ‘If this level of ‘symbolism’ enters their policy making, it’s not a wonder they’re still messed up 70 YEARS after the British left.’

    Wow! Colonialism and racism in one neat sentence. Thanks for letting us know where you’re coming from! Pathetic backward India unwilling to learn from advanced, clever West huh? Well, we know which is the colonial power these days.

  13. Peter Simmons says:

    I was never convinced GMOs were dangerous to human health. I assumed that was a tactical move by some opposed to Monsanto; since Monsanto lied repeatedly it was perhaps thought of as fighting fire with fire. It worked when the tabloids went with the Frankenfoods line and Monsanto found out it wasn’t going to be as easy to con us as they had assumed. I WAS there then, I was also awake, awake, educated and able to assess evidence and make my own mind up – as an atheist brought up from birth by catholics, my ability to sort out facts from bullshit was highly tuned.

    My objection was always the ecological one, and rather than anything specific was more a general cautionary approach, since man has consistently jumped in with new ‘good ideas’ only to discover later they were bad ideas. Understanding how modern agriculture, often referred to as ‘conventional’ despite organic being conventional for thousands of years and chemical farming having a much shorter history, damages the soil and forces bigger yields at a huge cost in sustainability, I could see how GM was predicated on this method, which to me appears quite ignorant and counter intuitive. GM also could represent many unknown dangers if released into the ecosphere, which is now a done deal. I never thought it could poison people, and am still unconvinced despite some evidence emerging of health damage to animals.

    It seems to me that those who support GM are almost exclusively in favour of the chemical cosh approach to growing food, have never grown anything themselves so lack a basic understanding of what is involved, and are dismissive of all who argue against them; first sign that arrogance has substituted for debate. Sneers here about tooth fairies, tree huggers and hippies seem familiar from the outpourings of the climate change deniers, who similarly use sneers in place of discussion. You must pardon people who see the similarities between the pro GM ‘lobby’ which Mr Lynas is a part of now, and the anti-science deniers, and assume a similar mindset. It’s hillarious when those against GM are attacked for being anti-science and conspiracy theorists, when they are the very same people who have consistently supported moves to tackle climate change and who have promoted renewables for decades. Since it’s based on science, they can’t be pro-science in that subject area yet anti-science in another.

    We are coming to the end of chemical agriculture’s ability to consistently increase yields, however unsustainably, and so the magic GM bullet is wheeled out as the answer, and without actual data to back up assertions of increased yields feeding the world, it rests solely on statements so vague that only the simple-minded would be impressed by them. Since Monsanto has been involved now for some time, you expect there to be a body of evidence showing clearly that it is all good news, that GM crops consistently outperform non-GM crops. Instead we see growing oppisition from the people who have used GM, the farmers, both in the US where it has gained most acceptance [with the FDA totally in the pocket of GM that they send inspectors with armed riot-police to destroy organic growers’ produce: for those doubting it, try a search, have a look on Youtube where there are videos of precisely this happening] and in countries like India where farmers discovered they were enslaved.

    I am always open to new evidence, to facts not rousing speeches, and willing to change my mind if the evidence stacks up. It hasn’t so far, and ‘superior-minded’ chemists commenting here and elsewhere don’t convince me as the climate science has. But then I stopped believing in the myth of ‘something for nothing’ many decades ago, it’s depressing that so many still fall for it. In a finite world you can’t get more from the same. With a deteriorating soil you can’t continue off into the future to extract more food and wealth, it would defy what physical science knows about the world. The answer to overpopulation isn’t to grow more, but to stop the growth of population. Wars no longer do this job for us.

    GM seems to me to be similar to the issue of nuclear power; lots of blandishments and promises, lots of ‘this is the only way we can tackle X’ and a shortage of answers to all the ‘what ifs’ that appear as response to such simplistic, short-term solutions that fail to look at long term consequences, often seeming to want to avoid looking at them. With nuclear, the Achilles heel is radioactive waste, accidents, spillage, contamination, vast cooling water requirements, and proximity to coasts which are under threat from sea level rise. Fukushima was most inconvenient, and is still a threatening situation that seems only to get worse with the Pacific being polluted and the operator not even knowing by how much. With GM resistant superweeds now making an appearance, we really don’t need health hazards to make a case against. Especially if we remember that these are multinational chemical companies, their business is selling chemicals, GM enables them to sell more of their own herbicide chemicals. Yet it is chemical drenching of the soil with continued erosion of soil health which is the main problem. Just more of the same isn’t a solution, however many bucks it makes for the American capitalists concerned.

  14. Peter Simmons says:

    Interesting piece on an Indian organic rice grower http://www.naturalnews.com/039766_rice_farming_organic_agriculture_yields.html seems his yield is 22 tons of crop on only two acres.

    • Scott says:

      Peter,
      I support Sumant Kumar 100% in what he is doing. So please understand the POV of my comment. I don’t wish to belittle his achievement or SRI at all. Breaking a world record is awesome, and dispels many myths about organic.

      However, it should be noted your link to this story is actually quite poorly written and misleading. It doesn’t need to be either. The story is good enough to stand on the truth without needing the spin. In this case the spin actually hurts the story.

      Sumant Kumar does use SRI. He did break the world record yield. SRI is an organic method.

      However,
      Sumant Kumar does not always produce such huge yields.
      SRI on average only doubles rice yields/acre vs conventional.
      The crop wouldn’t qualify as “certified organic” in the West due to the religious zeal the certification bodies maintain in their standards. He did use a small % of inorganic inputs.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      22 tonnes of rice with bugger all Vitamin A in it is still bugger all Vitamin A. Quality matters just as much as quantity.

  15. Peter Simmons says:

    Thanks for the heads up Scott. First time I’d encountered it. For me, not being ‘pure’ is no big sin, never gone with fundamentalists, ‘only doubles rice yields’ is good enough for me!
    You sound knowledgeable about this whole issue, so can you spell out to me how GM are supposedly going to feed more, because I can’t seem to find any evidence of this, all there seems to be is the froth but no beer. Even Mark’s lengthy pep talks are short on actual hard facts, and just seem to be salesman hyperbole, no substance. Or is that me being biased?
    Over and above any questions of yield is anyway the essential qurstion of soil health, and any method which creates dustbowls can’t be good, however much the yield. [I live on a farm, dust is a problem contantly, especially when work is being done on the fields].

    • Scott says:

      Peter,
      Anything you want to know about SRI from articles, blogs, scientific papers, peer review, power point presentations, you name it, can be found here:

      http://sri.ciifad.cornell.edu/news/index.html

      Cornell University is probably the leading agricultural research resource in the World on SRI, which can be either organic or integrated much like Integrated Pest Management.

      As far as GMOs go. Organic methods can be used to grow GMO crops if it makes sense to do so. Round-up ready GMs are ridiculous and useless in organic. But Bt crops could potentially be grown using organic methods.

      As far as yields go. After organic reaches a tipping point, it out yields conventional pretty easily. Usually that takes about ~5 years +/- for a skilled organic farmer to out yield a conventional farmer all other factors equal. There are exceptions. A good organic rancher can usually out yield conventional first year if he knows what he is doing.

      The so called “statistics” that show differently are generally severely flawed in a number of ways.

  16. Peter Simmons says:

    Bayer has just sued the European Commission to overturn a ban on the pesticides that are killing millions of bees around the world. How about that for a trustworthy technology? Usually, companies with a product rely on advertising it, and if people wish to buy it they will. Not so GM giants, they have the RIGHT to force its sales, and they use every big bully trick to enforce it. If not Monsant, then Bayer and Syngenta, all the same; fascists in chemists’ clothing.
    http://action.sumofus.org/a/bayer-bees-lawsuit/?sub=taf5

  17. Peter Simmons says:

    Scott: ‘After organic reaches a tipping point, it out yields conventional pretty easily.’
    Yes, Peter [very old friend] and Annie have proved it Blaencamel http://www.organicfreshfoodcompany.co.uk/blaencamel/

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